You witness a person you swerve abruptly, hit the brakes out of nowhere, drive down a one-way the wrong direction, or perform any other seemingly nonsensical maneuver. Fool! Idiot! Are you blind?! What. A. Moron! Why is it, though, that if you yourself make a mistake, you never think to criticize yourself the same way?
When it comes to finding justification, there is a disconnect in how we perceive the actions of others versus our own. This is a psychological phenomenon known as Fundamental Attribution Error, or Correspondence Bias.
As defined in this paper from 1995 (and many others before), fundamental attribution error is the tendency for people to draw conclusions about another person based on their internal characteristics or personality rather than the external situation that person may find themselves in.
This means that when we witness someone on the road make an odd move, we immediately assume that person is a terrible driver. Imagine watching a car in front of you swerve sharply on the road, maybe even going over the double-yellow line into the opposing lane, before finally re-aligning their car.
“Learn how to drive!”
Now imagine yourself driving down the road when you look down to see a spider crawling up your arm. “AAAHHHHH!” Caught in the panic of this horrific situation, you accidentally give the wheel a jolt, causing you to swerve over the double-yellow line. Your heart's racing as you quickly straighten out the car and try to figure out where that spider just ran off to.
What do you think the person behind you is thinking through all this?
“Get off the road you moron before you kill somebody!”
The difference is that when you find yourself in a bad situation, you are able to rationalize all the external factors and use them to justify your actions. “Bad driver? No! There was a spider ON MY ARM!” But because of Fundamental Attribution Error, others will not perceive the situation the same way you do, and thus assume you must be a terrible driver.
Given that there are so many cars on the road and so many things that can go wrong, even the best of drivers will find themselves making a stupid move every once in a while.
It's important to remember that not everyone is in the prime of their youth. Not everyone is in perfect health. Not everyone got a full night's sleep. Not everyone is fearless of spiders (is anyone truly fearless of spiders?). So next time you see a stupid move on the road, scream them if you wish, but remember there may be more to the story than you know.